Letting Go of Toxic Family Members

So your family is toxic, huh? Mine too.

It almost seems like dumb luck, of all the families in southeastern Pennsylvania, why must I be blessed with the most pervasive instances of addiction, undiagnosed and thus untreated mental illness, highest rate of divorce and most strained single mothers? Why must that also be compounded with poor and indirect lines of communication, lack of any semblance of emotional intelligence and a stigmatized relationship to therapy?

The short answer is, of course, I’m not the only one and of course, I don’t have it the worst. But when your childhood is marred by trauma and your adulthood is a battlefield marked by avoiding triggers like land mines, everyone else seems healthier and higher functioning than you.  

When your family unit–the one that was supposed to love you best, know you best, care for you best–turns out to be skilled fighters of a guerilla war wholly unannounced to you, you’re deprived of the tenderness you deserve. When the holidays come around–the time that’s supposed to be filled with the most tenderness–and you’re thrown into a room too small with too many of the people who hurt you the most, who understand you the least, who provide unsolicited advice and opinions at the same frequency as molotov cocktails in a riot, how do you get through it?

What do you do when your family is toxic?

These were the questions I had, so I asked them.

Kelly, 24

“I live with my mom right now. I have a sister who lives out of state, we mostly communicate over Snapchat. I cut my father out of my life over a year ago now but sometimes I still get texts or Facebook messages from him. I haven’t deleted my dad on Facebook but he is hidden, I don’t return phone calls (I don’t get many anyway) and I don’t go to family events.

I think I always knew my dad’s side was toxic but I wasn’t until my dad relapsed and my cousin told me I should have a child so he’d “have a reason to live” that I realized I was just not benefiting from them, but it was unhealthy and hurting.

I try to look for love and support from the people who’ve been there for me over the years, but it still can be hard. My father’s side doesn’t understand why I don’t want to speak to him and there can be a lot of shaming.

It took a long time for me to realize that it’s best not to have expectations. If my dad called saying he’s been sober since whenever and he was sorry, it would change things but I can’t put all my energy into wishing for that. The best way to manage your expectations is to manage yourself. I always put my wants and needs before this idea of family that just isn’t reasonable for my situation.”

Amanda, 31

“I email or call my mother sporadically, updating her with various tidbits of news in my life, asking about things back in Arizona. I refuse to speak with my father, even though my parents both still live together. I knew my father was an abusive piece of trash early in my life; he was always emotionally and verbally abusive, then he became physically abusive when I got into my early twenties, just before I moved out.

My father once choked me when I dared to question the efficacy of his genius plan to catch a mouse, I was 23, just graduated college, and that made me hell bent on moving out. Especially after the choking incident, all my friends have supported me in my efforts to leave, up to and including helping finance my move to Philadelphia where I am now living with my fiancee. I wouldn’t be half as happy as I am right now without my internet friends.

So many of my friends have bad family as well, we all pull together to support each other.”

Deen, 30

“I did not have the words to describe the toxicity at the time but when I was a teenager/young adult I knew there had to be a different environment out there for me. Once I went away to college for a year, I knew for certain. Drugs, alcohol, untreated mental illness, untreated trauma. My family is overly sexual, my family knows no boundaries. My family respects no differences. Much of my family is uneducated and impoverished, anyone who attempts to make a better life for themselves is essentially seen as the enemy, they “think they too good” or they “think they white.”

I feel guilty all the time, that’s another thing they’re good at, guilt trips. I don’t get close enough for them to run them on me anymore but I do it well myself after so many years of training. I also have a cousin, on my dad’s side who is super big on family and doesn’t know my mom’s side well or the dynamics between them and I, who frequently pressures me to be around them more.

I love the idea of a big happy family around the holidays and find myself envious of those who have that. I usually work a lot around the holidays as a distraction, it’s torturous because I don’t want to be alone. I have a huge family but cannot enjoy them. I also gave my daughter up for adoption a couple of years ago, so that adds to the pain and guilt and loneliness. I am grateful to have a supportive wife that listens while I talk her ear off. When I was in therapy, that helped a great deal as well.”

Danielle, 21

“Primarily, it’s my mother, my father is much more tolerable, but he is toxic in his own ways that can be just as upsetting as when it comes from my mom. What makes my family toxic is the hatred towards each other, the constant, “I have it worse than you” arguments between my parents. My mother [always] plays the victim, when I have tried to explain my mental health, it’s immediately dismissed and turned all around to be about her. The very hateful words she’s said to me, she’s thrown food at me, threatened to slap me, her constant childish behaviors of getting upset when she doesn’t get what she wants.

My father isn’t anywhere near as bad, the worst part about him is how easily he can belittle you because you aren’t as intelligent as he is. I have been there to care for them for so long. I feel like I need to please them.”

Hannah, 22

“My mother and I have never had a healthy relationship, I was kicked out at 17 to live with my birth father. The rest of my family (aside from my youngest sister, who is realizing this herself), I realized were toxic after the point when I had moved out on my own and lived in another city, separation brought clarity.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, was a fight with my mom where I had spoken up (for the dozenth time) about her ignoring my calls or messages, they were nothing urgent, just an attempt at a relationship, this had gone on for years, and brought up several times. She said that she could not give me what I needed, and that I asked for too much of her, and that she didn’t want this kind of relationship. I told her she could reach out to me when she wanted to talk, and that I would love a normal relationship, to which she replied that I was unappreciative and “one day I would realize family had always been there.” The irony of this is that almost two years ago after my second suicide attempt my mom and real dad said that they wished I had tried to talk to them sooner and kept in touch so that they could have seen it coming and prevented it, they wanted to prevent it from happening again, now she admits I am too much for her.

My friends are definitely supportive, and I love them like family. We are all scattered geographically so it’s hard to feel the same level of support and closeness, but I definitely consider them that.”